Lacan in Translation*

par Russell Grigg


The translations of Lacan available in English to date are somewhat scattered, having been translated by a variety of translators and published by a variety of publishers. There have been five translators of Lacan’s seminars in English: Alan Sheridan, John Forrester, Sylvaner Tomaselli, Denis Porter, Bruce Fink and me. There is I believe a translation of Seminar IV by what will be a sixth translator soon to appear. The first of these translations, Seminar XI, was published 23 years ago, in 1977, and the most recent in 1998. Alan Sheridan has also translated a selection from Ecrits, there are some papers translated by Jacqueline Rose in Female Sexuality and there are other articles and chapters from seminars translated in various places. Dany Nobus has compiled the most comprehensive bibliography of Lacan’s work published in English, which I believe will appear in his forthcoming book. And one should add that in Ireland Cormac Gallagher has done quite a number of translations of unpublished seminars and these circulate in manuscript form.

My own translation of Seminar III was published in 1992 and I am currently putting the finishing touches to the translation of Seminar XVII, which should appear later this year.

The first thing to note, then, is that there is no James Strachey, no Standard Edition, for Lacan in English. Moreover, there have been few efforts to coordinate the translations, with as a result a fair degree of variation between them, both in terms of the way certain words are translated and in the style and ‘feel’ of the translations themselves. However, these variations are not, in themselves, serious deficiencies. The real problem is that some are not very reliable.

In the earliest translations specially, Ecrits: A Selection and Seminar XI, there are many errors, in fact so many that it is often impossible to work out what Lacan intended, often making the translations unreliable, misleading, or simply inscrutable. To give an example of one of the more egregious errors, compare the following passage from ‘Direction de la cure’ with its translation in ‘Direction of the Treatment’ (Ecrits: A Selection, 261). It is a discussion of the smoked salmon dream of The Interpretation of Dreams (Standard Edition 4:147).

Here is the original French.

Car ce désir de notre spirituelle hystérique (c’est Freud qui la qualifie ainsi), je parle de son désir éveillé, de son désir de caviar, c’est un désir de femme comblée et qui ne veut pas l’être. Car son boucher de mari s’entend pour mettre à l’endroit des satisfactions dont chacun a besoin, les points sur les i, et il ne mâche pas ses mots à un peintre qui lui fait du plat, Dieu sait dans quel obscur dessein, sur sa bobine intéressante: "Des clous! une tranche de derrière d’une belle garce, voilà ce qu’il vous faut, et si c’est moi que vous attendez pour l’offrir, vous pouvez vous l’accrocher où je pense."


In the Sheridan translation this becomes:

For this desire of our witty hysteric (Freud’s own description)—I mean her aroused desire, her desire for caviar—is the desire of a woman who has everything, and who rejects precisely that. For her husband butcher is adept at supplying the satisfactions that everyone needs, he dots the ‘i’s, and he does not mince his words to a painter who is chatting her up, God knows with what end in view, on the subject of her interesting face: ‘Nuts! a slice of the backside of some pretty shit is what you need, and if you think I’m going to supply you with it, you can go and jump in the lake.’

Note two things. First, because Sheridan didn’t consult Freud’s text, the translation is wrong. It’s not the butcher’s wife but the butcher who is being ‘chatted up’; it’s not her ‘aroused’ desire but her ‘waking’, conscious desire. This failure to consult the passage under discussion in The Interpretation of Dreams is unfortunate, to say the least, since this is actually a very precise commentary on a specific passage in Freud. Secondly, note the failure to grasp Lacan’s thesis on the hysteric’s desire for an unsatisfied desire. This is also a pity, given that this passage is actually a seminal reference for the discussion of this very thesis! The translation compounds these errors as it goes along and the entire discussion of hysteria here is made more or less inscrutable. If we tidy up the translation, and rectify the errors, it should look something like the following. Note how all becomes quite comprehensible, specially if one has Freud’s text open alongside.

For the desire of our witty hysteric (Freud is the one who characterises her as such)—I mean her waking desire, that is, her desire for caviar—is the desire of a woman who is fulfilled and yet does not want to be. For her husband, the butcher, never neglects to dot the i’s and cross the t’s when it comes to providing her the kinds of satisfaction everyone needs; nor does he mince words with a painter who flatters him, God knows with what obscure intent, regarding his interesting mug, saying, ‘Nothing doing! A nice piece of ass is what you need, and if you expect me to get it for you, you can stick it you know where.’


The example is not an isolated one, unfortunately, and close and careful reading of Lacan is difficult in English with these translations.

That all sounds very depressing, but the good news, however, is that a new revised translation of these texts is being prepared by Bruce Fink, with assistance from me, and will appear this year as a new edition of Ecrits: A Selection. These revised translations will be followed by a translation of the remaining unpublished articles, thus giving, very belatedly, the first complete edition of Lacan’s Ecrits in English. The publication of the second volume of Ecrits articles, ie the currently untranslated texts, is still some way off, but when it is finalised the English-speaking audience will be in a much stronger position concerning Lacan’s work in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Even when this project is completed, there will still be plenty of material left to translate into English. I do not know of any plans afoot to translate Seminars V and VIII at this stage, and there are many late, important texts we need to have translated, such as ‘Radiophonie’ and ‘L’Étourdit’. So there remains plenty of work to be done.

This, then, is how things stand currently with the availability of Lacan in English. In the next twelve to eighteen months we can look forward to the appearance of Seminar 4, The Object Relation, Seminar 17, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (both very fine seminars, incidentally) and a new translation of Ecrits: A Selection.

Turning to the question of the issues that translating Lacan presents, there are a number of challenges one faces. It may be thought that the first and greatest is the difficulty of the texts. In my view, Lacan’s difficulty is greatly exaggerated. It is true that most people who come to his work with good will and genuine interest experience a degree of frustration at the difficulty they initially encounter. But this is no greater than the difficulty of reading, say, Kant or Wittgenstein. While it is important to realise that the translations, particularly Sheridan’s, have made Lacan appear more difficult that he actually is, the main difficulty with them is that they are an obstacle to the careful and considered reading and study that Lacan’s work calls for.

It would of course be wrong to say that it is always clear what Lacan intended. Bruce Fink and I have worked collaboratively on the new translations of the Ecrits articles and we have both at times felt that any attempt to make the meaning precise would be highly speculative and thus what has been obscure French has become obscure English—but this always leaves you with the nagging worry that you’ve missed something vital. In any case, the infamous ‘unreadability’ that Lacan refers to, the claim that the only way in is the hard way, applies above all to the writings. I think this ‘unreadability’ has to be taken in the sense in which a mathematical proof is not ‘readable’, but rather is to be worked through or unpacked, and the translations need to make this possible. With these new translations the attempt has been made to unpack Lacan’s texts and to retain as many of the allusions as is possible, while recognising that there are demands of ‘readability’, often quite pragmatic ones, or aesthetic and stylistic constraints, which make it impossible to pack all that the French contains into its English rendition.

The seminars are different however since, for a start, they were not delivered to be read but to be listened to. Moreover, the published seminars, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, have been edited specifically so as to make an oral presentation readable in the form of a book. This has meant, at least for me, that the readability of the seminars has been an important consideration in translating Lacan. I’ve tried to retain some of the informality of Lacan’s presentation as well as something of the extraordinary range and variety in his use of language, from le français populaire, as in Seminar XX, to his interest in the arcane and abstruse corners of the history of his language, as in his discussion of les précieuses in Seminar III.

A further challenge one faces is the ever-present possibility of different meanings. This may well be a source of fertility in Lacan’s original texts, but it can be a source of frustration for the translator given that it may be impossible to retain all possible meanings in translation. One can’t footnote them all, as there are too many, so one has to choose. Who is to say which choice to make? ‘sens’ as both meaning and direction; ‘désir de la mère’ as both the mother’s desire and desire for the mother; ‘instance’ as agency, instance, example, insistence; ‘entendre’ as to hear and to understand. This is of course a difficulty facing all translators but it is very acute in Lacan’s case, where it’s not just that there is polysemy, but that the polysemy may itself be the point: consider the discussions of imaginary rivalry between ego and semblable in which Lacan plays upon the homophones ‘tu es’, you are, and ‘tuer’, to kill.

Then there is the allusiveness of Lacan’s style. Without making it explicit, Lacan often alludes to an author, a text, a theory. There are many allusions to Freud, to philosophy to literature and culture. Alongside these references to a certain cultural heritage, there are allusions to much more historically specific events or references. It may be a reference to the Cuban missile crisis, in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, or to Lacan’s erstwhile supporter, Jean Laplanche in ‘Radiophonie’ by whom Lacan felt betrayed over the decision taken by the Société Française de Psychanalyse, in its manoeuvres to join the IPA, to accept Lacan’s exclusion from the position of training analyst. Or in Seminar III there are the numerous allusions to the French psychiatric tradition, which is largely unknown in the English-speaking world. Here the translator is forced to assume the role of editor, having to choose when or when not to add an explanatory note for the reader. There is a cultural difference between intellectual traditions that cannot be passed over in silence, even though this can make for a bit of unease in translating the seminars where all ‘critical apparatus’ has been deliberately left out of the French edition, and where also one senses at times that Lacan is having fun with, if not making fun of, his audience.

References in Lacan’s work to Freud can present particular problems too. We have in English a very strong and largely accepted vocabulary for Freudian terms, established by Strachey’s translations in the Standard Edition. This vocabulary is largely unchallenged with few exceptions, the most notorious one being ‘Trieb’, which was rendered as ‘instinct’ by Strachey but has been largely replaced by ‘drive’. Moreover the terms Strachey chose — ego, id, agency, etc. — are not only common currency for specialist in Freudian theory but have also passed into common usage, where they generally remain tagged as broadly Freudian. Nevertheless Strachey’s translation of the Freudian vocabulary has been criticised, most notoriously by Bettelheim, whereas when Lacan discusses Freud’s terms he never lets go of the possible complexities of Freud’s original term: think of Versagung, or the fundamental work that Lacan does on Verdrängung and Verwerfung for his theory of psychosis. On the other hand, there is no possibility of tracking Verwerfung through Freud in English. In a sense the very success of Strachey’s translations has been an obstacle, since they make it so easy to ignore that fact that Freud actually wrote in German. The difficulty becomes particularly apparent in The Language of Psychoanalysis, the translation of Laplanche and Pontalis’s Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse, where the decision to cleave to the Standard Edition translations of Freud at times appears very awkward indeed.

Lacan’s style is, for me at least, one of the most intractable difficulties for the translator, for the good reason that the style doesn’t actually work very well in English. While Lacan never won any prizes, Goethe or other, for literature, he is nevertheless a stylist of sorts. In his writings he is often very elliptical and highly allusive. There are many philosophical, literary, religious references that are not clearly spelled out. Also, his writing style is highly formal and structured and syntactically complex, creating a mannered baroque or rococo effect. There is a tradition of writing in this sort of mannered style in French, and, though I am not suggesting that they are on a par, Lacan is a bit reminiscent of Proust. Now, as it happens, this style does not translate very well into English which, with its aesthetics of sparseness and simplicity, leaves us indifferent to Lacan's stylistic and syntactic complexity.

There’s one final aspect of translating Lacan that I should mention. I can do no better than to describe it metaphorically by saying that he leaves you no room to manoeuvre in translating him. I have translated odd bits and pieces by a number of different French authors on psychoanalysis, and there is usually a degree of 'slack' in the way people write, so that you have flexibility as to how you render a passage. Most people leave you room to manoeuvre, and you can usually find a way of satisfactorily rendering their work. With Lacan, however, there's virtually no flexibility at all. Obviously, Lacan is not always like this, but often when he uses a word or phrase or sentence only this word or phrase or sentence, and no other, will do. And if there's no direct translation, then tant pis, that is just too bad. I don't quite understand what it is that makes Lacan's use of the language so special, since it happens not just with technical terms, terms of art, but this absolute exactness can crop up in the most mundane contexts—in any case, he obviously has the capacity not only to draw upon the semantic resources of the language but also to extend them and exploit them in unheard-of ways; which is perhaps why we now have the term jouissance in English, for instance. There seems to be something like this same capacity for drawing upon the semantic resources of the language in Freud.

Something else I discovered while translating the Seminar was that the quality of the material varies a lot from place to place. He obviously worked from notes, but with one or two exceptions never read out prepared material. So there is always an element of spontaneity. Sometimes it's not very clear what the point he's striving to make is, sometimes there is a certain flatness in the material, while at others one gets a wonderful sense of exhilaration before this extremely fertile and imaginative mind in full flight. Lacan's Seminar was not just about teaching, it was also about research and discovery, and at times you get the impression you are able to observe the gestation and birth of a new idea or the gradual articulation of a new thesis. It can be quite exciting, and watching these ideas emerge in vivo is probably what makes these Seminars unique documents.

Lacan's writing can contain an expressive power that is not achieved by the often dry and depersonalised writing of much international psychoanalytic literature. Lacan is a stylist, a baroque and defiant one to be sure, but one with, as Malcolm Bowie has pointed out, a capacity for formulating theses that are pithy, powerfully and memorably simple. Who is not aware of the claims: ‘The unconscious is structured like a language’, ‘A letter always arrives at its destination’, or ‘There is no such thing as a sexual relationship’? Certainly, these statements are not self-sufficient; they do not stand independently of his teaching. But they indicate the presence of a didactic side in Lacan's work, one that merits the term 'teaching'. It is when Lacan is a teacher directly involved in and concerned with the teaching and training of psychoanalysts that his work is at its most accessible, and the place where this teaching took place was his seminar.


* Publié dans Ornicar ? digital n° 125.